Stateless in the Dominican Republic: Lessons from Côte d'Ivoire

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers of Haitian descent are now stateless and risk imminent deportation if they failed to meet today's deadline to register their residency in the Dominican Republic. 

Animosity between Dominicans and Haitians dates back to the early 19th century when Haiti invaded the Dominican Republic, liberated the slaves and encouraged free blacks from the United States to settle there. Dominican Independence Day does not celebrate independence from Spain, but independence from Haiti in 1844. 

As Rachel Nolan notes in her excellent Harper's piece on the fraught relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, "Haitian immigrants in the D.R. do the menial jobs that most Dominican citizens try to avoid: construction, harvesting fruits and vegetables, cutting sugarcane, cleaning homes, and nannying children."

Since the early 2000s, Dominican authorities have changed national policies on nationality and applied those changes retroactively in a manner that discriminates against Dominicans of Haitian descent. On September 23, 2013, the highest court in the Dominican Republic ruled that people born after 1929 could only be granted citizenship if they had at least one Dominican parent. As part of its ruling, the court also ordered the Central Electoral Board to thoroughly examine country’s civil registry and birth records to remove from them all persons supposedly wrongly registered and recognized as Dominican citizens. After international outcry, the President presented a bill that stating that children born to foreign parents could be citizens, provided they have Dominican government identification documents and are in the civil registry.

But even with these changes, many Dominicans of Haitian descent continue to face obstacles to have their citizenship fully recognized. In the aforementioned Harper's piece Nolan notes: 

The following year, the path to citizenship was made open, if less clear, for the afectados. Under a new law, passed in May 2014, afectados fell into two groups. Those who had been inscribed in the civil registry and issued birth certificates before the Sentence, like Deguis, could be “accredited” as Dominican citizens, which would give them the right to I.D. cards and passports. This group includes about 24,000 people. Those afectados, however, who were born in the Dominican Republic before 2007 but did not have a birth certificate were required to embark on a complicated, uncertain application for naturalization. First they had to prove their birthplace by providing one of four acceptable documents, such as a signed statement from a midwife or witnesses, then they had to apply through the regularization plan. The majority of afectados thus found themselves in a similar position to Haitians who crossed the border more than four years ago, never mind that they had once counted as citizens. The law requires that beginning this June, all immigrants and afectados who have not completed the application, or whose applications have been denied, will be deported.

An optimist might hope that what began as a Dominican court’s massive experiment in denationalization might end in the Dominican government’s massive experiment in naturalization. But difficulties immediately became clear. Even the lucky group of 24,000 afectados with birth certificates had to obtain their I.D. cards from the Junta Central Electoral, the same body that had been denying such papers for years. The protest group has documented at least 150 instances in which afectados in this group were illegally denied papers. The day that I met Deguis, she had been turned down and told she needed to apply at a different office. Deguis finally got her I.D. card on August 1 of last year. For the first time in six years, she could work legally. She received a passport a few weeks later, but it is still not clear whether she will be able to register her four children as citizens. 

The Dominican government may have intended for this regularization path to serve as a window of opportunity, however, the onerous documentary requirements have proved difficult to navigate. For example, to complete the naturalization process, applicants must have an open, active bank account. In the bayetes, the isolated sugar company towns on the border of Haiti and the D.R., most of the applicants are poor, illiterate, and/or lack the necessary documentation to open a bank account in the first place. The government must develop other strategies to verify birth and long-term residence that poor, under-resourced communities can follow. 

In a 2013 LA Times op-ed authors Mark Kurlansky, Julia Alvarez, Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz lay out the possibilities of what lies ahead for this population:  "Will [Dominicans of Haitian descent] retreat into hiding, submit to the old conditions of near-slavery in Dominican agro-industry or desperately attempt escape on boats, as reports from Puerto Rico suggest they are already doing?" 

If you do not have papers, you cannot have a business, travel, drive, or even get married.

While the Dominican Republic must tackle administrative obstacles to ensure that Dominicans of Haitian descent with the requisite documents can process their paperwork, the government also has an obligation to address the plight of the nearly 200,000 Haitians who are unable to meet the documentary criteria. With the Haitian government lacking critical capacity and facing political upheaval ahead of its elections later this year, Haiti is unlikely to prove of much help in issuing documents or aiding in repatriation. The prospects for the soon-to-be stateless appear bleak.

For this latter group of Haitians, how can the government make headway in registration and naturalization while not creating a large group of stateless people? For solutions to that, I turn to  Côte d'Ivoire.

The recent rhetoric around these events in the D.R. recall the xenophobic rhetoric of Ivorité and how it created a population of over one million stateless people in Côte d'Ivoire.  Over 12.3% of Côte d'Ivoire is made up of migrants. Law No. 72-853 of December 21, 1972 excluded those who were born abroad - or whose parents were born abroad - from acquiring nationality. For the thousands of people who migrated in the 1950s to till the land, proving such heritage was nearly impossible. This law created a vast stateless population and continues to affect their children and grandchildren. The stateless are like ghosts in the community, present but not recognized. 

In October 2013, a new law came in allowing people to declare their nationality. For identified stateless persons, Côte d'Ivoire granted nationality on the basis of birth in the territory and long-term residence.  Foreign-born residents living in Côte d'Ivoire pre-independence became citizens along with their descendants. Foreign nationals born in Côte d'Ivoire between 1961 and 1973 and their children also qualified. Moreover, to reduce the risk of statelessness, the Ivorian government also reinforced civil registration mechanisms to ensure children are immediately registered after birth and created late birth registration procedures. To guarantee the successful implementation of these changes, Côte d'Ivoire utilized the services of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In this manner, the Ivorian government managed to address their stateless problem by regularizing long-term residents and tightening procedures for future generations. 

Despite its fraught history and ongoing turmoil, the Dominican Republic might consider implementing similar steps in order to avoid further uproar and to promote a more equitable and amicable relationship between the D.R. and Haiti.

Akinyi OchiengComment